One of the primary concerns for fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason is the notion that the team is “winning” free agency, which means the team was devoid of talent and in need of high-priced replacements at multiple positions.
And to be fair, those concerns are based in reality. The Buccaneers were a 4-12 football team with an awful offensive line and a defense built around an in-his-prime once-in-a-generation player who isn’t getting any younger.
The “stark contrast” to winning free agency is the notion of building through the draft, much like what the Green Bay Packers have done. The Packers rarely spend in free agency, instead opting to take care of their own players and continue to build on draft day.
So the 2000′s Packers and late 2000′s Eagles have become the opposing forces in the constant war of “how to build a team.” Smart drafting versus “the dream team” of free agents. And obviously, the Packers’ model has worked on a more consistent basis than the Eagles’.
But that doesn’t mean spending on free agents makes a team bad. Let’s consider the facts.
2013 Miami Dolphins
Looking back in recent history, with the help of Gregg Rosenthal of NFL Around the League, we learn that there have been some truly bad free agency experiences over the past few years. The most recent, the Miami Dolphins, is where we’ll begin.
Miami was 7-9 under coach Joe Philbin in 2012, with a struggling offense and a bend, don’t break defense which was top-10 in points allowed, but nearly bottom-10 in yards allowed. That offseason, the team opened up the checkbook, and completed the following moves:
- Sign Mike Wallace to too large of a contract.
- Sign Dannell Ellerbe to too large of a contract.
- Sign Philip Wheeler to too large of a contract.
- Sign Brent Grimes to a smart contract.
- Sign Dustin Keller to a decent contract, and unfortunately lose him to injury.
There were obviously concerns during the offseason that the Dolphins were overspending, but they still could have coped with their misses in free agency via the draft. But that’s where we see the real issue in Miami.
Dion Jordan was selected third overall, and did not make an immediate impact. And looking back at the rest of Miami’s recent draft history, it’s obvious why they’re a mediocre team. From the 2012 draft, Ryan Tannehill has been a moderate success, but Jonathan Martin‘s time in Miami ended abruptly, while 2011 second-rounder Daniel Thomas never developed into the workhorse back the Dolphins needed.
Clyde Gates, Frank Kearse, A.J. Edds, Pat White, Patrick Turner and Phillip Merling stand out as misses over the past few years in Miami draft history as well, combined with successful departures like Vontae Davis, Sean Smith and Jake Long.
So poor drafting and failure to hold on to key draft successes doomed the Dolphins much more than simply spending in free agency.
2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You know how bad the Bucs’ drafts were before the 2012 offseason. So despite adding two legitimate veteran free agents with Pro Bowl/All Pro potential (Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson), you can see that it was poor draft history, including a total whiff on the 2009 draft, which hurt the Buccaneers in 2012 and 2013, rather than simply spending in free agency.
And for an encouraging point of view, unlike the Dolphins (who are stuck with their high-priced free agents for years to come), the Buccaneers structure contracts in such a way as to be able to release or trade players more easily after 2-3 season in Tampa. So even if the recent signings of Dashon Goldson and the 2014 free agent class don’t work out, Jason Licht has the ability to get rid of these players sooner rather than later.
2011 Philadelphia Eagles
The 2011 Eagles were coming off of their second straight Wild Card round loss, and were anxious to take the team to the next level in the following season. So how did they do it?
Adding a 30-year-old corner, a backup running back and quarterback and two defensive linemen (who were both pretty decent) in free agency, along with trading for another corner closer to his prime.
You know how this story ends.
But looking at the Eagles’ recent draft history at that time, you can see where things went wrong. The 2011 draft was awful, with sixth rounder Jason Kelce representing the only good player from that season. The previous year wasn’t much better, with Brandon Graham and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim leading the way for a disappointing draft class.
There are countless other examples, but let’s consider yet another free agent spending spree in recent history: the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report pointed out in his Fab 5, the Bucs bolstered their roster in a major way in the years after a 1999 NFC Championship Game loss to the St. Louis Rams. The Bucs added impact players like Simeon Rice, Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius, Keyshawn Johnson, Greg Spires, Brad Johnson and more via free agency and trades. But that’s not the only reason they won.
Franchise cornerstones Warren Sapp, Ronde Barber, John Lynch and others were already in place via the draft, which set the Buccaneers up with a core of players to build around with exciting free agents.
It remains to be seen if the Bucs’ “draft core” of Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Doug Martin and assorted other talents are enough to build around. But the simple fact that the Bucs are spending in free agency doesn’t doom them to failure.
The draft will be integral in getting the Buccaneers back to perennial contender status, and Jason Licht knows that. But this isn’t an “either-or” scenario. The Bucs can have key free agents and trade acquisitions complimenting draft choices.
The Seahawks added free agents and traded players to their draft picks, as have the Saints, 49ers, and many of the other successful teams in recent memory. Free agency is not a one-way ticket to a doomed franchise.
Poor drafting, on the other hand, is a ticket to the bottom of the NFL. The new regime in Tampa Bay gets their first crack at the draft this summer, so we’ll see if they can right the wrongs of previous front offices, and start building a strong foundation for a successful franchise.